America’s relations with Russia have been driven off the front pages in recent days by the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, and President Donald Trump’s reaction to it, but the state of relations with Russia remains critical.
Troops are still lined up on both sides of the NATO-Russia-and-allies’ border. Scheduled military exercises are looming.
In late December, President Barack Obama ordered the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats and the seizure of two Russian Embassy installations as retribution for Russia’s intervention in America’s 2016 elections. That would normally have provoked on the Russians’ part comparable retaliatory measures. They didn’t, presumably because Russian President Vladimir Putin expected better relations with the incoming government of Trump and thought to prime that pump by not reacting to Obama’s expulsions.
By the summer, the sugar had not yet started to flow from Washington in reflection of the cozier relations Putin had expected. In the last week of July, both the U.S. House and Senate approved a new round of sweeping sanctions against Russia by veto-proof margins. Putin struck back on July 28. It was a standard reaction plus some, obliging America’s diplomatic and consular installations in Russia to reduce their staffs by 755, many of them Russian employees. Russia also seized control of two U.S. diplomatic properties, a warehouse and a recreational center.
These developments took place against a background of increasingly intense investigations into Russia interventions in the 2016 elections. The three inquiries — one led by former FBI chief Robert Mueller as a special prosecutor for the Justice Department, another by the Senate Intelligence Committee and a third by the House Intelligence Committee — are an increasingly painful subject for Trump as they probe into his own financial dealings as well as the activities of members of his family and personal aides.
On July 26, the FBI searched the Washington-area home of Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chief. It was of interest both in indicating how Mueller’s team is operating, in the potential exposure of activities involving Ukraine, Russia and Manafort that might be revealed, and the renewed public focus on U.S.-Russian relations the search prompted.
It is hard to imagine, given the political damage incurred, that the fuss generated by the Charlottesville affair was intended in part to distract public interest from the Russia investigation, but that is what has ended up occurring. Let’s see how long it lasts.